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Beating the system

For the first North Korean to receive asylum in the United States under a 2004 human-rights law, a life of freedom comes through danger and cost, attended by miracles

Beating the system

Suh (Photo by Sophia Lee for WORLD)

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

South Korean activist holds placard outside the Chinese embassy demanding that Beijing scrap plans to repatriate arrested refugees from North Korea.

LOS ANGELES—Suh first heard the word God in Korean—ha-na-nim—from his 70-year-old grandmother when he was about 12. It was a word seldom uttered in North Korea, where media portrays American missionaries as evil white devils and Bible possession is punishable by death.

“Is that somebody’s name?” Suh asked. “No,” his grandmother said. “It’s a term for an invisible being who watches over us. But He exists. So just believe in Him.” That was all she could—or would—say about God, leaving the young schoolboy puzzled but otherwise not too concerned. Now 46, Suh recalls that strange conversation as his earliest introduction to God.

Wiry, auburn-skinned, and slight in the way that’s characteristic of most North Koreans, Suh in 2006 was the first North Korean granted asylum under the North Korean Human Rights Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2004. Only about 130 North Koreans have been successfully resettled in the United States under the law since then—an indication of how difficult it is to escape and start over in a new land.

Now a trusted deacon at a church for North Korean refugees in Los Angeles, Suh has his own experience with God to share—but it’s not easy to get him to talk.

That’s understandable for someone who underwent the hardships he suffered or the privileges he shared as a captain in North Korea’s military. Remnants of that life remain visible on his body. An accidental detonation left his lips puffed and swollen, his chin splotched with shiny, vein-shaped skin that looks smooth yet leathery. Suh’s fingers are flayed and deformed, arched painfully, and mottled with rough-edged fingernails sprouting like weeds among thorns. 

Suh inked a fading tattoo on his arm with a needle and thread when he was a young soldier: a four-letter allegiance to protect his country, and the date of his promotion. He doesn’t want to show the tattoo or disclose his full name in fear that retribution will strike extended family members back home. Instead, he offers his new name: Abraham. And everyone in his church calls him “Deacon Suh,” a title to which he still responds with a start. 

When Suh speaks, he angles his body to the right, his neck twisting slightly so that he rarely makes eye contact. He distrusts journalists: One hid a camera in a bag and filmed him through a hole punched in the fabric. The whole world already knows the atrocities in North Korea, Suh says, so what’s more to talk about? But Suh warms up as he starts talking with me in Korean about how he became a Christian—and he voluntarily extends the conversation to an hour and a half. 

Suh escaped from North Korea by leaving behind his wife and crossing the Tumen River to China with his year-old son. But life in China was hard. Able to speak only a few words of Chinese, he constantly feared discovery by Chinese officials, who routinely repatriate North Korean refugees. A Korean church in one of northern China’s rural villages sheltered him, but Suh found the church members annoying. They kept visiting him, grabbing his hand to pray, and weeping for his salvation: “My heart was shut to them.”

Indebted to the church members for protecting him, Suh allowed them to drag him to worship, but he felt “trapped in a lecture room. The only thing I could think about during service was how to leave a second earlier.” Indoctrinated into faith in evolution, he thought ludicrous the idea that God formed man out of clay and breathed life into him. Unless he could see and experience this God personally, Suh refused to believe.

The church deacons were relentless. They stuck into his hand a thick Korean Bible and urged him to read it. It collected dust on his desk, until one night when Suh had trouble falling asleep. He lay in bed, opened the Bible, and read. It took an hour to read one page, because Suh couldn’t understand the vocabulary: Woman’s descendant? Man of God? He gave up and went to sleep.

That night he dreamed. In his dream, Suh and his friends in North Korea were debating the impossibility of God’s existence. All of a sudden, a speckle of light twinkled in the distance. It kept expanding until Suh had to shield his eyes from the brightness. Through his blurred vision, he saw a figure of a man with golden hair who gazed down at him. Suh spoke first: “Who are you?” The figure replied, “I’m the Jesus whom you have so stubbornly denied. Quit being so stubborn, and just follow Me.” 

When Suh woke up, he was drenched in sweat. No longer able to fall back asleep, he reached for his Bible again and read until dawn. He professed faith in Christ soon after. During those weeks, living in hiding in rural China, he began to grow as a new Christian.

About three months later, someone in the village reported Suh. A truck loaded with Chinese officers screeched in front of the church. As his church friends screamed protests, Suh let himself be led away to the truck, staring into space with an almost peaceful emotion that he still can’t explain. The Chinese sent him and his son back to North Korea.

The next few months in prison camp seemed endless. Suh was delirious most of the time. Guards forced inmates onto their knees, refusing them sleep, food, or access to bathrooms: “I felt my knees rotting away.” 

Some prisoners were so exhausted and hungry they fell to the floor in a limp heap, rolling in their feces-soiled clothes as guards kicked and pummeled them with sticks and fists. “When I think about those days there …” Suh’s sentence trails off, and he continues with a deep sigh. “All I could do was pray. I just kept calling out to God for help.” 

Help came when guards dragged Suh and his son onto a train, apparently headed to another prison camp. The train had no glass in its windows—people had stripped it away to trade for food—so with a prayer Suh grabbed his son and jumped out. He crossed the river once again back into the same village in China. 

Suh knew it was madness to return to the same place, but he remembered his tearful church friends who had prayed so fervently for him. He waited until midnight, then crept up to the door of a young deacon. He dared not shout out the deacon’s name, so he stood outside and coughed. The deacon and his wife were amazed because they thought they would never see him again.

This time Suh made his way to Vietnam, armed with a bamboo stick and a knife hidden in his sock. He reached Hanoi but could not find the South Korean embassy. Unable to speak Vietnamese, he could only ask in halting English, “South Korea?” For five days he searched for the embassy before spotting a cross in the distance. Suh rejoiced—a church!—but when he reached it, it turned out to be a hospital. 

Suh loitered around the hospital wondering what to do until a man in a hospital gown stepped out and asked him in Korean, “Are you Korean?” The man paid a local rickshaw runner to take him and his son to the South Korean embassy. “I escaped from North Korea,” he told the consul at the embassy. “I ask for protection.” The consul told him to get out. 

Suh wondered if he had heard wrong, or if he had come to the wrong place. Why would a South Korean brother ask him to go away, knowing full well he had nowhere to go? Then the consul picked up the phone and barked orders. Within minutes, the Vietnamese police surrounded the building. Suh, raging at this fellow countryman who would drive him out, whipped out the knife hidden in his sock and snarled, “If you don’t call off the police, I’ll slash your throat.” The consul convinced the police to disperse, and Suh ran out soon after. 

Vietnam was no longer a place of hope and safety. With his now 2-year-old son clinging to his back, Suh crossed over to Laos on foot. Even now, that’s all his son can remember: holding on to his father’s back as he traveled across unfamiliar streams and hills. For days Suh could see only mountains and the round, pale moon. His son burned with fever, limp and unconscious on his back. Exhausted, famished, and frustrated, Suh exploded into a tirade at God: “Why are you making us go through all of these sufferings, only to kill us? Are we to die and rot here in a foreign land?”

At that instant, something rustled in the bushes. Suh froze, thinking it was some kind of beast. A young lady emerged instead. She picked up his son and started walking away. Suh stumbled and chased, shouting hoarsely, certain she was kidnapping his son. Instead, she led him into a Christian home in a village—the only Christian family in that area. 

“I knew then it was all God’s doing,” Suh said. The Christian lady got his son the medicine he needed, and his fever subsided. Instance after instance like that led Suh to look back and “realize that God had always been present and working. Even the bad is all part of His grace.”

Suh later met a manager of a South Korean pub in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, who connected him with a South Korean consul very different from the one in Hanoi. This consul booked a hotel room for Suh and his son. When they were about to eat another meager dinner of boiled corn, a South Korean pastor arrived with clothes, shoes, and several traditional Korean dishes cooked by his wife. 

Suh and his son traveled to Bangkok, where they lived six months in an apartment with three other North Korean defectors. He finally received a South Korean passport, lived three years in Seoul, and saw again his wife who also managed to escape.  

Currently, Suh and his family live in Los Angeles under refugee status. His whole family professes Christ and goes to church together every Sunday. Suh still has daily struggles. He still has trouble trusting people, even other Christians, and especially South Koreans. He can’t find work because he can barely string together an English sentence; his wife works in a Korean massage parlor. 

Suh also misses his hometown in North Korea, and dearly wishes to return so he can evangelize his relatives—but he doesn’t believe that will happen. He follows news about North Korea with a mix of skepticism and hope, desiring reunification but believing he won’t see it in his lifetime. Still, he says, he feels at peace now, a luxury he never enjoyed before. 

Slow to change

Will 2 million Korean-Americans pressure the next president and Congress to make human rights in North Korea more than an afterthought?

The Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz recalls past grassroots campaigns in the United States—to free Soviet Jewry, bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime, and stop Sudan’s government from terrorizing the people of southern Sudan and Darfur—and says the same thing could happen if Korean-American churches take the lead. 

Two-thirds of Korean-Americans are churchgoers, and occasionally they have stirred. In 2004 the inaugural conference of the Korean Church Coalition (KCC) for North Korea Freedom saw more than 2,000 pastors praying for the North Korean people. In 2005, 2008, and again this year KCC organized prayer vigils and conferences. But Horowitz says KCC has not brought consistent pressure on politicians: He says Korean-Americans, a powerful and rich demographic, can quickly affect U.S. policy if leaders push hard.

KCC executive director Sam Kim insists that his organization is bringing about change, but on a different scale than what Horowitz envisions: KCC represents thousands of churches and “cannot make a stand where we are critical of the government and members of Congress. We don’t go and threaten them.” Kim says 100 high-school students his organization brought to Washington this summer learned, “They can make a difference and they start speaking out more … in a peaceful, prayerful, and nonconfrontational manner.”

Hannah Song, the president of LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), a grassroots organization that aids and protects North Korean refugees, says North Korea should not be an issue only for Koreans. LiNK formerly targeted Korean-American college students, but its headquarters in Torrance, Calif., now includes workers from various ethnicities. Last year LiNK interns presented speeches and documentaries at 800 events in high schools, colleges, churches, and community centers in 43 American states and three Canadian provinces. But some Korean churches decline invitations because they’re “not interested.”

Song criticizes media coverage of North Korea, pointing to headlines that either gossip about Kim Jong Un’s pretty female companion, or politicize the matter by focusing on nuclear threats: “It can be very frustrating and challenging because then most people will say, ‘I don’t want to get involved in political things.’ We’re working to try to help the people. That shouldn’t be a political issue.” —S.L.

New era, old antagonism

The United States, mostly concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, sometimes pressures the regime by threatening to withdraw food aid. China doesn’t want North Korea tinkering with nuclear weapons any more than the United States does, but China also is getting tougher on border controls: It claims that North Korean escapees are “economic migrants,” not refugees—ignoring the reality that any North Koreans it deports will face severe punishment back home. 

South Korea is at the mercy of the two. It needs U.S. support and military power, even as its younger generation simmers with anti-American sentiments. The older generation still hopes the country will be unified, but many younger South Koreans prefer the country to stay divided because they fear that the poverty-stricken north would leech the south’s resources. The more than 23,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea who live on government support do not relieve South Koreans’ negative image of North Koreans.

North Korea, meanwhile, will not shut down its nuclear weapon plans or move away from humanitarian atrocities any time soon. Despite hopeful talks about Kim Jong Un’s policy shifts, the new leader’s first act was to direct guards to shoot to kill any defectors crossing borders to China. Prison camps and public executions still exist, as does deathly antagonism against Christianity. —S.L.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:53 pm

    Thank you Sophia!  Your expert journalism helps us to  remember in prayer (and any other support we can give) our suffering family in Christ around the world.